Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
On the banks of the historic Little River, wedged up against the newly bustling neighborhood of Miami Ironside, sits a patch of grass where you can lie about and let your dog run around. On its surface, Manatee Bend Park isn't particularly majestic or visually striking, but its name is not just a legacy of Miami pioneers or a Parks Department brand. It's where the Little River actually bends and where hordes of manatees often hang out, just lolling around, blissfully doing charmingly lazy sea-cow stuff. The herds are attracted to the brackish water and congregate here (yes, sometimes so they can engage in the manatee nasty). Don't touch them or scare them away, though. They are rare and need room. Pro tip: The potential for manatee encounters rises exponentially if you head west. (There's also road access behind the shopping mall off NE 82nd Street, though that area is not technically part of the park). If you want to commune with Mother Nature's favorite underwater cow, this is the place to do it.
Lest ye forget, the miracle 2016 Dolphins season began as a dumpster fire. And no one had a more revolting beginning to the year than Jay Ajayi. When he learned that veteran Arian Foster would be the starting running back for the season opener, Ajayi reportedly grew so outspokenly disgusted that rookie head coach Adam Gase suspended him for the first game. As the season wore on, though, Ajayi was proven right to be outraged. After the team's limp 1-4 start, Ajayi broke records to jump-start the Dolphins into the playoffs by finishing with wins in nine of their final 11 games. Ajayi did what only three other football players in the history of the NFL have ever done by running for back-to-back 200-yard games. When he passed the 200-yard mark for the third time in week 16, it clinched the Dolphins' first playoff trip in eight years, making him one of only 15 NFL players ever to have three 200-yard games in their careers. Can he add to that total in 2017? Seems the only thing that could stop him is another suspension from his coach.
Readers' choice: Jarvis Landry
Miami Heat fans wept over Dwyane Wade's departure, but if they squinted at the court through their teary eyes, they might almost have thought Wade was still playing for Erik Spoelstra. Out at the center of American Airlines Arena was a shooting guard taking and making impossible circus shots, banking in clutch jumpers, and even shouting "This is my city!" when his buzzer-beating three defeated the Golden State Warriors in the midst of a 13-game winning streak. But this heroic new DW wasn't Dwyane Wade: He was Dion Waiters. Before this season, Waiters, drafted fourth overall in 2012, had earned a rep as a talent capable of not only scoring as many points as anyone in the league but also shooting his team right out of certain victory when he was cold. But Spoelstra got Waiters in world-class shape and changed his game by persuading him to be a willing passer. And when the game was on the line, Waiters still got to take — and often make — the crucial baskets in one of the most fun seasons in Miami Heat history. Though Heat fans might not yet be ready to proclaim that it's Miami-Waiters County — especially with the possibility that Waiters could sign as a free agent elsewhere this summer — Waiters' 2017 season at the very least was a hell of a one-night stand after the 13-year Dwyane Wade romance.
Readers' choice: Udonis Haslem
Coaching the Miami Dolphins is a lot like going to college: It's typically a four-year experience that leaves you with an alcohol problem. Adam Gase is only one year into Miami Dolphins U, but it's clear he is well on his way to graduating with honors, unlike the vast majority of his predecessors. Gase took a clunky, spiritless Joe Philbin-led team and turned it into a spunky 1-5 squad right out of the gate last year. Wait, that wasn't the good part. That was the adjusting-to-college portion of his freshman season. Over the next two months, Gase guided the team on an incredible stretch of nine wins in ten games. He didn't let the Dolphins drop out of the playoff race, against all odds, and they eventually made it to the postseason for the first time since 2008. Gase's Flip This Franchise type of impact in just a year has been remarkable. He's already changed the team's narrative from an endless story of negativity to a tale of promise. Dolphins fans are quite rightly thrilled that Gase will again wear the headset on Sundays in Miami this season.
Readers' choice: Erik Spoelstra
For years, it's been a chore to find a bright spot in a Miami Hurricanes football season. Year after year, the campaign opens with promise and ends with a dull thud. New head coach Mark Richt has the ball moving in the right direction, but his first season ended with much of the same usual disappointment. However, Canes tight end David Njoku needs no asterisk at the end of his career. The first-round NFL pick always looked like a man among boys on the college field, and his 2016 campaign stood out even more. Njoku hurdled defenders and stiff-armed jabronis all the way to the end zone eight times on 43 catches for 698 yards. Even on their worst days, the Canes and their quarterback, Brad Kaaya, always had Njoku to lean on. Now that Njoku is in the NFL, he can continue a tradition of Hurricanes tight ends — like Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow II — dominating at the next level. The only regret Canes fans have is that they got to see Njoku in an orange-and-green Adidas uniform for only a short time. Now they'll have to make do with enjoying him vicariously on Sundays.
Readers' choice: David Njoku
Miami Hurricanes basketball has a solid reputation at this point: gutsy, never-say-die, athletic players who get after it every single night. Head coach Jim Larrañaga is rightly credited with instilling that attitude, but he couldn't have done it without senior Canes guard Davon Reed. The six-foot-six Jersey native, who was picked for the first-team Atlantic Coast Conference defensive unit last year, is well known as an absolute nightmare on that side of the floor. But Reed isn't just a beast in man-on-man markups. He started all 33 games in 2017, his senior season, and hit at least one three-pointer in all but one contest. He played a ridiculous 1,165 minutes in those 33 starts — the rock a young Canes team needed while it did a little growing up early on. Without Reed, this Hurricanes team definitely wouldn't have fought its way to an NCAA tournament bid. Even for a Larrañaga-coached team, last year's edition was noticeably gritty — and Reed was the beating corazón of a squad with a lot of heart.
Christian Yelich is easy to overlook. Unlike his cartoonishly muscular teammate Giancarlo Stanton, he doesn't resemble Dwayne Johnson. He isn't flashy and lightning-quick like second baseman Dee Gordon. The man they call "Yelly" is more a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of ballplayer. If you're looking for all the bells, whistles, bat-flipping, and over-the-top swag, you've come to the wrong place. But the thing is, the list of those unimportant things Yelich doesn't have is dwarfed by the vital roles he plays for this Fish team. In 2016-17, Yelich exploded in the second half of the season, yanking pitches into the outfield stands more often than he ever has before. He finished with 21 home runs and 98 RBI. Maybe most important, Yelich missed only seven of the Marlins' 162 games. On a team that had a lot of ups and downs, Yelich was a reliable leader in the middle of the lineup and the corner of the outfield. Yelly should be in Miami for years to come, and for beleaguered Fish fans, that's a rare bit of great news. Now if Jeffrey Loria would just sell the team already.
Readers' choice: Giancarlo Stanton
Cats fans had to put their rubber rats back in storage last year. After pulling off a surprising run to the playoffs in 2015-16 and making their signature favorite rodent rain all over the ice, the Florida Panthers regressed last season, stumbling to a mediocre 81 points and missing out on the postseason. But even without any fake-rodent fun, fans weren't totally without reason to cheer thanks to Vincent Trocheck. The 23-year-old continued his rise to NHL stardom, tallying 23 goals and 31 assists while playing all 82 games. Trocheck was a constant in an ever-changing lineup, making it clearer every night that he — along with fellow youngsters Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau — is the future of the team. With Trocheck in the center of the ice, the Panthers have a cornerstone to build around, and fans have a reason to continue stockpiling those rats.
Among pro sports presidents, Pat Riley has been in a class all his own for decades. But the 2016-17 Miami Heat was an accomplishment right up there with luring LeBron James to Dade County and assembling the Big Three. When the Heat started the season 11-30, that sentiment would have seemed insane. The team's blazing-hot second half, though, when it flipped its record to go 30-11, showed that the Godfather knew exactly what he was up to, even when he was thrown massive curve balls such as Chris Bosh's medically induced retirement and Dwyane Wade's shock defection to Chicago. Between the signings of James Johnson, Dion Waiters, and Wayne Ellington and development of Rodney McGruder and Willie Reed, Riley put together a completely revamped roster on the fly. Not even the most diehard Heat fan saw this year's team becoming an all-time favorite. And now Riley has the Heat in a perfect spot to compete in the near future. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame for many reasons, but this year's performance in the front office shows he's not resting on his reputation. Bet against Riley at your own risk.
For Miami basketball fans, Tony Fiorentino is family. He's been with the Heat since day one, starting in 1988 as an assistant coach under then-head coach Ron Rothstein and then keeping that job under both Pat Riley and Alvin Gentry. In 2004, Fiorentino moved to the TV booth as the team's main color commentator. After 13 years of him calling games, his sayings have become downright synonymous with Heat basketball, especially his ringing "Yeah, baby!" after big dunks or game-winning three-pointers. Fiorentino is basically the Italian uncle most of Miami has never had. His lovable demeanor and smiling face alongside longtime lead Heat analyst Eric Reid have become a damn near tradition in Dade County. Yes, Fiorentino is an unapologetic homer, but he isn't afraid to mix in moments of "I'm really disappointed in you now" dad dialogues when the team messes up. After several seasons of turmoil — from the Big Three breakup to Dwyane Wade's shocking defection to Chicago — it's nice to know that one member of the Heat Lifer family will always be around for the big games.
Readers' choice: Donovan Campbell
From the early days of D-Wade through the rise and fall of the Big Three, one constant has stood on the Miami Heat's sideline for more than a decade. No, not Burnie. Jason Jackson patrols the hardwood as courtside reporter for Heat telecasts, hosting in-game spots and postgame "Winners Circle" interviews. Known for proudly rocking an ascot, Jackson also hosts the team's Emmy Award-winning Inside the Heat series that could become a spinoff show in its own right. His smooth style is intoxicating, and his demeanor makes players comfortable enough to let loose instead of giving the robotic answers they're usually programmed to spit out at the mere hint of a reporter's voice. Whenever Jackson hits Heat fans before tip-off with his trademark "It's time to ball, y'all," it's a ticket to goose-bumps city.
For decades, Miami has struggled to find its center. With downtown largely a ghost town and towering new condos largely vacant for years after the Great Recession, the Magic City often felt like an urban metropolis without a core. That's all changed. Just look at the huge protest marches that broke out after Donald Trump's inauguration; the tens of thousands who gathered sent a powerful message that Miami now firmly has a focal point. And there's no surprise that it's right along Biscayne Bay, where Miami is stockpiling evidence of its transformation into a world-class city. Begin with Bayfront Park Amphitheater, a strikingly beautiful space that hosts everything from huge national musical acts to weekly free yoga classes. Next comes Bayside Marketplace, the spot to take your visiting relatives shopping when they want a photo of themselves with a parrot on their shoulder. Then you hit American Airlines Arena, home of our beloved Miami Heat and a stop for the biggest musical tours in the world, from Kanye to Radiohead. Finally comes the open greenery of Museum Park and the venues that gave the park its name, Pérez Art Museum Miami and the long-awaited Frost Museum of Science. It feels good to have a center.